Friday, November 13, 2009

What Is Academic Freedom For?

Minding the Campus invited several people
, including myself, to respond to a speech by the president of the University of Chicago, Robert J. Zimmer, at Columbia University on October 21st on the topic, "What Is Academic Freedom For?"

Here's what I wrote:

Robert Zimmer quotes an admirable 1899 statement on academic freedom by professor Albion Small. But there's a problem: Small made the statement to defend his role in firing instructor Edward Bemis. The historical record makes clear that Small was lying, and Bemis was fired for his liberal views criticizing the railroad industry. Zimmer also praises president William Rainey Harper without mentioning how Harper wrote to Bemis: "Your speech . . . has caused me a great deal of annoyance. It is hardly safe for me to venture into any of the Chicago clubs." Harper proposed "that during the remainder of your connection with the University you exercise very great care in public utterance about questions that are agitating the minds of the people."

There's a similar disconnect between theory and reality in the 1967 Kalven Report. The report was a failed attempt to bring peace on campus by trying to declare politics off limits. Of course, the report didn't stop repression of left-wing opinion at all. Historian Jesse Lemisch had been fired in 1966 for being too radical.

Because of his left-wing activism, sociology professor Richard Flacks was permanently disabled and almost murdered in his office in May 1969. Radical professor Marlene Dixon was fired in 1969, prompting student protests that led to the biggest mass expulsions of any college in the 1960s. The University regularly employs lobbyists to advocate funding from the government for itself. This happens even though many conservative University of Chicago economists (and myself) can be lined up to oppose this public policy. The University would never follow the Kalven Report when it impedes its revenue stream. The Kalven Report is simply wielded against liberal activists, to excuse the refusal to divest from South Africa or Sudan. In the late 1990s, when I was a student there, activists tried to convince the University of Chicago administration to join the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC), which monitors labor practices to help ensure that workers making campus apparel were treated fairly. The administration claimed that the Kalven Report prohibited them from joining, because the WRC advocated a stand on public policy by opposing sweatshops.

Some aspects of the report are intellectually shoddy. Take, for example, this bizarre notion that an individual's academic freedom is violated if the institution takes a public policy stand. Nonsense. One of the university's greatest presidents, Robert Maynard Hutchins, was legendary for speaking out on public policy. Sadly, the presidents of our era, such as Zimmer, are scared to speak out lest it offend powerful donors and use the Kalven Report to defend their timidity.

The real danger to academic freedom comes from presidents who seek to silence speech about public affairs. It was the quietly conservative presidents who damaged academic freedom and academic quality at the University of Chicago, not the outspoken liberals like Hutchins.The Kalven Report may make it safer for President Zimmer to venture into the clubs where rich people give him money, but it hasn't made academic freedom safer.

John K. Wilson is the founder of, the author of "Patriotic Correctness: Academic Freedom and Its Enemies" and the author of "Barack Obama: This Improbable Quest"

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